How to Help Friends Who Live with Chronic Illness

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Perhaps the greatest revelation of the past several weeks is that I’ve probably lived for the past fifteen years of my life with an undiagnosed auto-immune disease.

I struggled with migraines.

I was tired all the time–not just tired, but a deep, overwhelming bone-weariness.

I experienced numbness and tingling throughout my body, and pain that often kept me awake through the night.

My best friend, who lives with my husband and me, had been diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder a number of years ago. Our symptoms often mirrored each other. And my husband battles a debilitating neurological disease that impairs his walking. I saw my role as “the healthy one” in our household, whose job was to be the feet and strength in our home.

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain,” writes Vivian Greene. And I agree. So how does one live with chronic illness? How will I CHOOSE to face my upcoming diagnosis?

1. Let go of regret and blame. My condition has gone undiagnosed and thus, untreated for many years. I refuse to choose blame, and instead, see those years as a gift. My attitude will be key to my health and recovery, but more importantly, it will be integral to my spiritual health.

2. Make friends with my limitations. I must learn that I cannot do it all. And I don’t need to make apologies–to myself or others. I will need to establish new boundaries and regard them as God’s provision and blessing for me.

3. Choose my attitude. This means letting go of jealousy and envy when I see others doing things I cannot do. I must find peace with my illness, which does not define who I am, but is part of my life. I will need to find ways to acknowledge and grieve my pain and understand its role in my life.

4. Use my pain. Pain is my platform to a hurting world. It provides me opportunities to speak into people’s suffering. Pain is an opportunity for me to stretch my arms outward to a suffering world.

5. Find support.  Some people just don’t like to look at illness. Others are built to come alongside. Find your tribe, and refuse bitterness when you recognize that many people don’t understand how to offer long-term support or comfort.

How to Help Friends Who Live with Chronic Illness

1. Ask your friend what support looks like to them. I’m an extremely social person, but for the past several weeks, I’ve done very little except lie on my couch and try to work through my pain. I realize that this is a season, and I will shift into another when I receive my diagnosis and treatment plan. For the past few weeks, church family and friends have been feeding my family and meeting other needs. But those needs will shift in the weeks ahead.

2. Commit to a long-term relationship. Chronic illness means a lifetime of complication–often for families with growing children. Typical support comes in the form of meals for a few weeks. I commend  churches, like mine, that work to provide support groups, health advisors and parish nurses, health information, educational outreach, and practical assistance with needs for those with chronic illness. If you’re a friend to someone with chronic illness, they will benefit from your loving support for years to help carry out the many details of life that can be a challenge.

3. Offer medical advice sparingly and when asked. Everyone wants to share medical procedures or products that have have helped them. But when everyone chimes in, the effect can be overwhelming. Today, enormous options exist within health care–respect your friend’s choice to pursue a treatment plan that may be different from one you might choose.

4. Offer to minister in your area of strength. Until just recently, I wasn’t considered much of a cook. You didn’t want me delivering a home-cooked meal to your house. But I made a great medical advocate for you at your appointments or to sit with your sick child in the hospital so you could get a break on Christmas morning. What are YOU good at? What can your family offer? A few ideas

  • Assistance with housework or home maintenance
  • Vehicle maintenance
  • Errand-running or grocery shopping
  • Scheduled calls or Skypes for shared devotions or Bible study
  • Financial assistance
  • Help with giving kids birthday parties, getting them to camp, or delivering them to lessons and games

The key is to CONNECT AND CARE. Encourage your church to set up coordinated services through Lotsahelpinghands or another online organizational assistance program.

Have you experienced chronic illness? What does support look like to YOU?

14 thoughts on “How to Help Friends Who Live with Chronic Illness

  1. Shelly … you got this one right on! – I’ve experienced this for the last 10 years …. having CFIDS > Chronic Fatigue Immune deficiency syndrome. Right. you have most likely been dealing with this unofficially … and of course that infamous “Serenity prayer” is always helpful on a daily basis …

    • Dawn, it sounds like you’ve struggled and grown in wisdom. Thank you for the reminder about the Serenity Prayer. We all can use it.

  2. This strikes close to home and is much appreciated. I have put my own chronic health needs off because I am my husband’s caregiver – he has frequent and great need for care. I am very grateful for those who sit with me while he undergoes surgery.

  3. Thanks for this article! Great thoughts and ideas…I will be sharing it with the Grand Rapids Support Group Chapter from the organization PANDORAorg.net

    • Thank you so much, Patty, for passing this along. I appreciate he opportunity to learn from others and to share resources.

  4. I have been battling Crohn’s disease (autoimmune gastrointestinal disorder) since I was 18 years old. To me, support looks like being nonjudgmental. When I say I hurt, am exhausted or have to go the bathroom–yes, again–accept it. Know that I know my body best. I realize it’s hard to relate if you’ve never struggled with something like this, so compassion goes both ways. Recognizing that Crohn’s can be a disability, that it is different for everyone, and that it’s not my fault, are tremendous ways to support me. Thank you for writing this!

    • Thank you, Melanie. You’re so right about asking people to accept and acknowledge the reality of our pain. Everyone who lives with chronic illness/pain has felt this frustration. You have helped us put into words a common frustration.

  5. I totally “get” what you wrote. I was diagnosed 24 years ago with what I was told to be CFIDS. Two years ago a doctor finally got to the root of my illness and found that I have had Lymes disease all of these years. God enabled me to care for my husband for the last 4 1/2 years of his life and also to care for both of my parents….all at the same time. I did have to ask for help with my parents the last 2 months of my husband’s life when he needed my full attention. All three of them went to heaven between Nov. 10th, 2009 and March 25th, 2010.

    It’s only by God’s strength that I was able to do all that I did. By the time they all went to heaven, my adrenals were completely crashed, hormones were terribly imbalanced, thyroid was messed up…….I was just totally and completely spent physically and emotionally. But, I can truly say that it was my privilege to be able to care for my husband and both parents for they were the ones who loved me like no one else on earth ever can or will.

  6. My dear Shelly, I thank our Great God for leading me to these discussions! As I’ve said before, my husband is, quite often, not taken seriously by the medical world. This has resulted in both of us being very angry and frustrated with the medical world. Thank you so much for reminding me that we need to give all of the bitterness we feel towards the medical world over to God. His ways are not our ways! Ain’t that the truth!! 🙂 Very thankful for that too! Support for us is our family, friends, and church helping in any way they are able to help. We had trouble, at first, accepting their help, but God has used and is still using several different people to “come alongside” of us when we need help! And sometimes even before we ask!! And yes, there have been those few family members and friends that have said things and have asked questions before really thinking about it first. I mean, we expect it from strangers that haven’t been with us from the beginning, but from people who know you and say they love you, well, it was painful. I know you understand. However, as time goes on, these dear ones are learning, that despite the lack of diagnosis, there really is something wrong with my sweet husband after all. He is quite a trooper, my man. 🙂 And you Shelly, are an amazing woman!! A beautiful, loving, kind, and generous woman of God!!

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